Yannick Alléno is probably the most famous chef you’ve never heard of, which is quite some feat considering he’s became a fully fledged member of the exclusive three-Michelin-star club at the age of 40. But today the Frenchman fills the role of ‘celebrity chef’ perfectly – he’s wearing pristine chef’s whites and is immaculately groomed, which may or may not have something to do with the French TV shoot he’s just finished. He apologises profusely for being late and joins me at a table in STAY, his glimmering, shimmering flagship restaurant at Dubai’s One&Only The Palm.
Alléno is in town to promote his new menu, but he’s quick to point out that his involvement in each of the restaurants that constitute his global empire (which spans Paris to Dubai and Beijing) shouldn’t be judged by the number of times he visits, but the time he invests in each. It’s difficult to quantify the time spent tinkering with menus and decor, but Alléno tries to clarify his point by explaining the concept behind STAY.
‘I don’t want people to think of it as a “gastronomic” place or a “destination” restaurant,’ he begins. It’s not the most convincing opening gambit, considering STAY is perched on the tip of The Palm’s West Crescent. But Alléno isn’t referring to geographical accessibility per se; instead, he’s trying to foster a sense of approachability. ‘We give a certain spirit to a dining experience,’ he continues. ‘When we opened, I took a sheet of paper and I wrote on it what people expect and want from a restaurant. I think of how people in our generation want to enjoy dinner. For example, if you’re a party of eight or 10 people in Paris, it’s almost impossible to find a table – forget it. Restaurants [there] don’t want to have noisy groups. Also, as you can imagine, it’s a nightmare for a chef to get an order for a table with 14 different dishes. So, I introduced the ‘sharing table’ – a place where the chef can cook what he would do for his friends.’
While many other restaurants across Dubai feature some semblance of a ‘chef’s table’, the same cannot be said of STAY’s unique pastry library. The Dubai venue was the first of all Alléno’s restaurants to feature a concept that has since been replicated throughout his network of high-end venues.
The fact that Alléno first trained as a pastry chef might have something to do with his decision to uproot the pastry kitchen and place it in the dining room, though the main reason, he says, was to highlight a component of a meal that can all too often be an afterthought. ‘Generally, pastry is the part of the meal that is the least interesting, but in reality it’s integral to the success of the dinner experience. This [pastry library approach] gives the diner so many different options and makes the course so much more accessible. Yesterday we had a small child go up to the pastry library and take a small scoop of ice cream. That’s very cool and friendly – generally, people have to be quiet in French restaurants, and sit and wait. It also provides a balance between the chef and the pastry chef. I think we’ve touched on something very unique.’
Though he is the face of Groupe Yannick Alléno, and as comfortable as he is discussing concepts and innovations to transform the modern perceptions of fine dining, Alléno is the first to admit he’s most at ease in the kitchen. I interpret his statement as an invitation, and the two of us soon swap STAY’s opulent environs for the luminous aesthetic of an immaculately organised kitchen.
It’s here where Alléno has been working with his team to produce the new menu, which I’m lucky enough to watch him prepare first-hand. I can’t help but wonder out loud how top chefs can continually conjure up new and creative dishes. Alléno concedes that there’s an element of trial and error, but says it’s ultimately down to taste. ‘You have to understand and differentiate the taste of things. I think a chef has to be an expert degustator. The more you eat, the more you know what to eat.’
On that note, he sets about preparing the tofu velouté. It’s always interesting to watch a master at work – the best chefs always seem to take on a new personality when they’re in the kitchen. I don’t mean this in terms of Ramsey-esque temper; instead, their movements and mannerisms change, as does their focus. As Alléno places small button mushrooms gently on the surface of the silken tofu, before sprinkling over shreds of dried seaweed, I glance up to see the other chefs are as rapt as I am.
I’m also amazed just how simple the dishes are, and how quickly they’re prepared. Before I know it, Alléno is working his way through a blood orange as he creates the citrus garnish for the John Dory, which is embellished with red chilli pepper from France. The fish is then bathed in avocado oil (and later garnished with soft slices of fresh avocado), a combination that Alléno says he was always looking to incorporate into a hot dish. As well as taste, he is also interested in texture, which becomes clear when I bite into the soft fish, seasoned with crackling rock salt and accompanied by softer-still avocado.
This brief flurry in the kitchen seems to have enlivened Alléno, who even takes time to show me a copy of Time Out in his office – the February 1-7 issue, no less, offering ‘101 things to do in Dubai’. ‘I’ll try to do at least one of these things before I leave,’ he says with a glint in his eye, before beckoning me back out to the restaurant and over to the much-vaunted pastry library.
The last dish of my impromptu three-course meal is specific to Dubai. ‘You’ve heard of the Paris brest?’ he asks, suppressing a smile. ‘Well, this is the Dubai brest.’ I see what he means – the traditional Paris dessert of choux pastry and praline-flavoured cream has been reimagined with an age-old Dubai staple: dates. It’s nice to see that our city is making an impact on international fine dining.
Alléno is clearly having fun behind the pastry counter – reconnecting with his roots, perhaps – which I suppose is the whole point of his vision for modern-day fine dining: fun and friendly. As he puts the finishing touches on this very Dubai dessert, he looks around at the restaurant and then at me. ‘Restaurants should not be designed for a chef’s ego,’ he concludes. And with this, he hands me the Dubai brest, which I devour like a kid in a candy shop.
Try the new menu at STAY by Yannick Alléno, One&Only The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 440 1010).
Yannick’s pick of Dubai’s dining options
When he’s not making Arabic-inspired pastries, Chef Yannick makes an effort to eat out at Dubai’s other top dining spots. Here are his top three…
The Nobu brand draws celebs like moths to a flame, but this isn’t a concern of Yannick, who goes purely for the exquisite Japanese-Peruvian fare.
Atlantis The Palm (04 426 2626).
Rostang, The French Brasserie
We were surprised by this one – while decent enough, Rostang isn’t what it once was. Maybe Yannick visits for the sake of his French contemporary, Michel Rostang.
Atlantis The Palm (04 426 2626).
Great Japanese food, great location and a destination for Dubai’s glitterati. What other reasons does Yannick need for a visit?
DIFC (04 425 5660).